Professional Organizers Can Help In Texas Divorce Cases

January 24, 2008

One of the most dreaded aspects of divorce from a client’s point of view may be in completing the inventory and appraisement.

The “I&A” is a sworn statement of all the assets and liabilities owned by the community estate or either party to a suit.  The filing of an inventory by each party prior to trial is mandatory in Galveston and Harris counties, (where the author practices family law) and likely in most other counties in Texas.   The  I&A is the blueprint upon which the property division of a divorce is built .  It is also the basis of any detailed mediation or negotiations in which property is an issue- the parties will use the inventories to divide the property.  The document is a complete listing of not only the property, but what the parties think the value of the property is.  It is also an impeachable document in any adversarial hearing. 

For these reasons, the Inventory and Appraisement is one of the most important pieces of documentary evidence in any divorce- even those with only minor property disputes.  The parties must therefore put a lot of careful attention and detail in the inventory.  Obtaining account numbers, charge balances and other financial information for the inventory is difficult enough.  But for most people, the most intimidating parts of the inventory preparation is trying to catalogue all the “stuff” accumulated over a five, ten, or thirty year marriage. 

Most inventories do not require detailing anything with a value of less than a certain dollar amount (it is assumed the parties will divide such property themselves because the cost of litigating over these items is more than the items themselves are worth).  However, particularly in medium to high net worth families, there can be considerable assets spread throughout a home, in curio cabinets, in attics and in storage units.  Most people do not have a good idea of everything they own, let alone a detailed list and estimated value that is required to prepare an inventory. Some clients are so intimidated by the large task of cataloguing their valuables, that they give up the items in the divorce simply because they don’t have the time or energy to do all the necessary work.

Luckily, help is available through the National Association of Professional Organizers.  According the their website at www.napo.net, “A professional organizer enhances the lives of clients by designing systems and processes using organizing principles and by transferring organizing skills. A professional organizer also educates the public on organizing solutions and the resulting benefits. NAPO (pronounced NAY-poh) currently has close to 4,000 members throughout the U.S. and in 8 other countries.”   A search of their member database revealed 21 NAPO members in the Houston area.

I recently met one NAPO member, Judson Crowder.   Judson, after 9 years working in Hollywood organizing the packing, storage, and retrieval of set pieces (most notably with the show “Everybody Loves Raymond”) has returned to Houston to start his own his service company: Restorganize, LLC. (www.restorganize.com)  As part of his services, he organizes and inventories all items in a home or storage unit.  If you require your items to be put in a certain place for easy access, Judson will do that.  But more importantly for the divorce case, Judson creates a catalogue binder which details all the specifics of your individual pieces of property.  The binder includes a color digital picture, category of the item, and any other details needed. 

Such a catalogue binder could be an invaluable part of a divorce inventory or otherwise used as evidence for trial or mediation.  In a snapshot it allows the judge, mediator or party to see what is being argued over. 

Naturally, such services are not warranted in all cases.  The costs of this service (which can range between $50 to $100 per hour or more and take one or more full days depending on the volume and location) must be weighed against the value of the items to be inventoried.  However, Judson’s and other professional organizers’ services can take the drudgery out of this part of the discovery process in a Texas Divorce.   In medium or high asset cases, such services may be the difference in achieving a fair division of the property.  


Texas Family Law Mediations: Court Approval of Agreements

January 29, 2007

One of the issues that inevitably comes up in Texas Family Mediations, especially when the parties are trying to creatively resolve their dispute by coming up with a custom made possession order for the child, is the question of whether the judge will approve the mediated agreement once it is presented to the court to be fashioned into a court order. 

It would seem to be a fundmental right for two parents to come up with a parenting plan for their child.  However, in Texas, this is not the case.  The parties, even if they are in full agreement with how the child will be parented, must present their plan to the judge for his or her approval.  This is because it has been the practice of some family law judges to take a heavy handed approach of setting aside agreements of parents because, in the judge’s own opinion, the agreement  is not in the child’s best interest.    The judge’s assumption of this sweeping power is based on case law and the long standing tradition of judges.

However a 2005 amendment to Texas Family Code 153.0071, the statute governing alternative dispute resolution procedures in family law cases, adds a new requirement that effectively takes the sweeping power away from judges to override the judgement of parents.  In the the old statute, a court could decline to enter a judgement on a mediated settlement agreement regarding the conservatorship of a child if the court found “the agreement is not in the child’s best interest”.   In 2005, subsection (e-1) was added which strictly limited this right of the judge.  Now for a Court to disapprove a properly executed and submitted mediated settlement agreement, not only must the court find that the plan is not in the child’s best interest, but also it must find that a party to the agreement was a victim of domestic violence and was too impaired by that to make a good decision.  In essence, the legislature has taken away the power of judges to override the wishes of parents to decide at mediation what is in the child’s best interest.  The only time the court may not render an order based on a mediated settlement agreement is in the very narrow situation when one of the parents is (a) a victim of domestic violence and (b) that past domestic violence has caused the person to psychologically not be able to make decisions that are in a child’s best interest.

There are several outstanding questions that need to be answered in how this new provision of the ADR procedure statute will be applied.  For example, does the domestic violence referred to have to stem from the specific relationship or facts surrounding the present case, or does any past domestic violence count?  What if the domestic violence occurred years ago?  What if the domestic violence was from a former relationship that has no connection with the present case? 

Despite these and other unanswered questions, this newly revised statute is a long step in the right direction for Texas Family Law.  It has firmly placed the power of parents to enter into written agreements about their children without unnecessary influence of the courts.  For parents going through a divorce or other suits affecting the parent-child relationship, they have the freedom to fashion their parenting plans according to their wishes, and with minimal interference from an impersonal court.  For Texas family law mediators and family law attorneys, this means that they have the freedom to help the parties fashion a binding parenting plan with as much customization as is necessary for the personal situation of the parties.  No longer will it be necessary to worry about creative solutions for custody and possession going outside of the comfort zone of judges who are afraid to approve any parenting plan that is not cookie-cutter.  In today’s age of mixed and blended families, non-traditional families and families separated by long distances, this flexibility is absolutely essential for parties to peaceably resolve their issues regarding their children.

Texas Family Code Sec. 153.0071 as amended states in part:

“…(d) A mediated settlement agreement is binding on the parties if the agreement: (1) provides in prominently displayed statement that is in boldfaced type or capital letters or underlined that the agreement is not subject to revocation; (2) is signed by each party to the agreement; and (3) is signed by the party’s attorney, if any, who is present at the time the agreement is signed.

(e) If the mediated settlement agreement meets the requirements of Subsection (d), a party is entitled to judgment on the mediated settlement agreement notwithstanding Rule 11, Texas Rules of Civil Procedure, or any other rule of law.

(e-1) Notwithstanding Subsections (d) and (e), a court may decline to enter a judgment on a mediated settlement agreement if the court finds that: (1) a party to the agreement was victim of family violence, and that circumstance impaired the party’s ability to make decisions; and (2) the agreement is not in the child’s best interest.” (emphasis added).


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